is northwestel for us or against us

While the rest of the world obsesses over tablet computers and smart phones in 2011, Yukoners will be focused on something else entirely: internet data. Or, in more precise terms, the relative lack of it that Northwestel provides.

While the rest of the world obsesses over tablet computers and smart phones in 2011, Yukoners will be focused on something else entirely: internet data.

Or, in more precise terms, the relative lack of it that Northwestel provides.

Over the holiday season, Northwestel published a series of posts to Twitter using the #chkuse tag.

The campaign was apparently designed to raise awareness about how to “check” your “use” of internet data.

Instead, it raised flags about an apparent rising level of paranoia within Northwestel regarding the increasingly massive amounts of data its customers (that’s us) are using.

It’s a tough position that Northwestel is in. The company is a legacy cable and telephone operator, heavily invested in old technologies.

This is a company that clearly understands traditional telephone and cable television services.

That is, it has a firm grip on the past.

What this company doesn’t understand (despite my repeated predictions in this column) is that its customers are quickly moving away from those old fashioned services.

Canadians in general are the largest per-capita consumers of internet services in the world. I’ll bet Yukoners were key to our nation staking that statistical claim to fame.

Realizing the expensive shortcomings of cable television and the telephone, like the rest of the country, Yukoners are moving online to access these services instead.

We’re subscribing to Netflix to access dirt-cheap movies and television shows. (Who wouldn’t pay $7 a month to put unlimited access to a video store on your TV?)

We’re renting the latest television shows and movies on iTunes, where programming is cheaper and available sooner than on Northwestel’s competing service – and there’s lots more of it.

Skype is our gateway to the world, since there’s just one long distance calling plan available: free.

And let’s not even mention BitTorrent…

There’s just one problem: Northwestel controls the flow of data to and from the internet. And many of the services we want to access require tremendous amounts of the stuff.

It’s sort of ironic. Northwestel has invested significantly in the northern internet infrastructure. We all now enjoy a wonderfully fast pipe south.

The funny thing is, though, the company doesn’t seem to want us to enjoy it too much.

And, really, why would they?

The internet threatens to kill the company’s legacy products. If we all went online for everything, there’d be no need for landline telephone service or cable television. “Long distance calling plans” would become anachronisms – actually, they already are for most of us.

And where would that leave Northwestel? Well, the company would be a basic utility, not much different than Yukon Electrical.

One service, one line on the bill.

That presents a wide variety of problems for the company, not the least of which is the fact that it would become a much smaller company.

With the bulk of its services gone, there’d be limited need for a marketing department. There’d be almost no need for most of its engineers, technicians and support staff.

In other words, the transition to internet utility would gut the company with massive job losses.

So even as Yukoners want to move online, Northwestel, focussed on the status quo of self-preservation, doesn’t want us to.

So the company’s last defence is data control.

Despite the fact we all have access to a massive pipe to the internet, by providing just a trickle of data, and then by over-charging for anything beyond our monthly ration, Northwestel hopes to limit our ability to take advantage of all that the internet offers.

The company wants to force a dependency on its legacy services.

Unfortunately, this approach is building a situation of conflict.

Usually, a business provides its customers with the service that the customers want.

Northwestel is actually fighting the interests of its customers in an effort to preserve its aging business model.

It’s not a good strategy. And it’s going to come to a head this year.

My fear is that Northwestel, rather than listen to its customers and respond to their interests, will work to enhance their level of control over internet data.

This may take the form of traffic shaping or throttling our access to the internet, something I’ve been assured they’re not yet doing.

For example, in order to raise interest in and dependency on its cable television service, Northwestel could make using Netflix a very unpleasant experience.

Or if the company finds Skype is drawing too much revenue away from its long distance plans, the company could limit bandwidth available to that service, effectively dropping the quality and dependability of Skype calls.

One hopes, however, that Northwestel doesn’t commence with that adversarial of an approach to business.

Instead, one hopes that the company adopts the interests of its customers. The company could work collaboratively to achieve them to the benefit both of itself and us.

If Northwestel were willing to think outside of the box, I’m sure there’s a solution that would limit job losses, improve services, and enable the company to disengage from its legacy business model.

(Hint: the company has to move “into” the pipe.)

As demand for internet data increases significantly in 2011, Northwestel’s true colours will become apparent.

Is the company for us, or against us?

Andrew Robulack is a Whitehorse-based freelance writer and communications technology consultant specializing in the internet and mobile devices. Read his blog online at

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